The Arizona Cardinals chose Isaiah Simmons with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. When you draft a player that high, the expectation is for him to immediately be an impact player and eventually develop into one of the best players at his position in the NFL. This hasn’t been the case for Simmons thus far. In fact, before Sunday night’s game against the Seattle Seahawks, he had played only 78 total snaps for the entire season. While he did have an enormous interception in overtime that helped lead Arizona to victory, he also didn’t play a defensive snap in the first half and played only five in total.
So why isn’t Simmons on the field? I’ve identified a couple of things that have been problematic for him since entering the NFL.
He’s not an ideal scheme fit in a 3-4 defense
At Clemson, Simmons was lauded for his athleticism for a young man his size. He had also spent time competing on the Clemson track team in the long and triple jump. Simmons logged 303 snaps at cornerback, 218 at safety, 160 at outside linebacker, and 121 at inside linebacker in college. However, the Cardinals have 3-4 personnel on their defense, which means Simmons would either have to play traditional safety or inside/outside linebacker. The Cardinals were one of the worst teams in the NFL at covering tight ends in 2019, so they also drafted Simmons with this in mind. However, they quickly realized he didn’t have the overall skill set necessary to play back-end safety in the NFL.
Simmons has struggled to set the edge and face physical offensive tackles play after play, so that eliminated him playing outside linebacker. They settled on inside linebacker and he started the first game of the season against San Francisco. He was quickly exposed as a liability and only played 18 snaps that game. Covering and playing in space was supposed to be a strength, however, 49ers running back Raheem Mostert caught a “Texas” route and went 76 yards while Simmons was covering him, easily running away from Simmons on the play. Simmons also struggled in the run game.
That entire game was his welcome to the NFL moment. Simmons was not ready for the NFL in Week 1 and has seen very limited snaps in the weeks that followed.
He lacks a true defensive temperament
As I mentioned, Simmons was lauded for his athleticism coming out of Clemson, but he was never a physical or violent player in the games I evaluated. In my scouting report on Simmons leading up to the NFL Draft, I wrote: “…this player will struggle as an inside linebacker if coveted by a 3-4 team.”
When you’re an inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, you will be tasked to stack and disengage physical and strong interior offensive linemen. Ideally, your linebackers are physical, downhill players who either defeat blocks with instincts and speed or the ability to disengage and get to the football. He lacks the physicality at the point of attack and he does not have the violent/ aggressive natural temperament to play in the box down after down in the NFL.
Playing football in the NFL is a violent game. You need defenders who have the kind of temperament that not only embraces the physicality of the game but are contact-seekers who love the violent aspect of football. If he needs an example, he can just turn around and look no further than No. 32 Budda Baker, who plays with the type of intensity and physicality that garners instant respect from his teammates.
Overall, Simmons was seemingly drafted for his athleticism and to solve a specific problem. However, I believe his skill set would be best served as a weak-side 4-3 outside linebacker, where he can use his athleticism to be more of a chase player.
Steve Keim had an ultimatum from ownership to improve the roster through the draft. He chose the best available athlete from the school that had just won the national championship, even if the fit wasn’t necessarily snug. Not having a preseason due to COVID-19 restrictions may have hindered Simmons’ development as well. As a result, Simmons is behind free agent acquisition De'vondre Campbell, who is getting nearly all the snaps in both base and sub-packages. Campbell has come better than advertised and has turned out to be a pleasant surprise for a defense that finds itself in the middle of the pack in the NFL.
As it stands, Simmons will have to be a special teams player who also plays in sub-packages in more a specialty role for the foreseeable future. Arizona will likely give him plenty of opportunities to start based on the first-round investment. However, for their current roster, he isn’t a better defender than any of the players in front of him. Simmons is seemingly used to being the best athlete on the field. Now he’s only one of several great athletes on the team and the process of becoming a physical, attacking defender is coming along slower than anyone would have liked.